Frequently asked questions
+ What gives sea urchins their unique flavor?
Research suggests that the flavor and color of urchin roe is very dependent on what the urchins eat. Urchins that exclusively eat “umami” rich kelp like Japanese kombu tend to produce the best taste profile and therefore get the best prices. This is part of the reason why we use sustainably procured Japanese kombu in our feed. On the other hand, urchins that have been eating weeds or animal protein (think mussels or fish) tend to taste really bad.
+ What is in the feed?
Our proprietary sea urchin feed is made with sustainably wild harvested and farmed kelp to achieve optimal growth, color and flavor. Our most important ingredient is Japanese kombu, or Laminaria Japonica. We purchase the off cuts that come from Japanese kombu production for human consumption, and use these fragments of the nutrient rich blades and blend it into our feed. We choose to use Japanese kombu because it contains some of the highest concentrations of “umami”, or flavor-rich amino acids that give sea urchin roe its unique flavor. The feed is 100% natural and contains no animal ingredients, as well as no corn or soy.
+ Japanese kombu would be a foreign species in our waters. Is there a risk that we would be inadvertently introducing a foreign species in our waters?
During the production process, we heat treat the feed to ensure that any active spores from the various kelp species we use would be rendered inert. Thus, there is no risk that our feed would transport unwanted species. To be clear though, not all feeds are made alike. Soft feeds that do not have a heat treatment process can be a transporter of unwanted spores, eggs or other creatures that should not be introduced to other regions.
+ Does your feed contain antibiotics or growth hormones?
Absolutely not. There are no growth hormones or antibiotics in our urchins or urchin feed.
+ Why are you using kelp in the feed when you want to restore kelp?
The kelp we use is from areas that either have an abundance, or are from kelp farms that produce kelp specifically for consumption purposes. We do not use kelp from areas that are suffering kelp loss due to urchin overgrazing, climate change or pollution, as this will defeat the purpose of why we are doing what we do.
+ Most aquaculture feeds contain soy or fishmeal/fish oil, which is associated with environmental degradation and overfishing respectively. Does your feed contain any of these ingredients?
No. Soy, fishmeal and fish oil are often used in aquaculture feeds because it provides a proven and cost effective source of protein for the animals to grow. We chose to remove these ingredients because kelp, a low impact ingredient, was achieving better results in terms of taste and overall performance.
+ What makes urchin ranching different from regular aquaculture?
Aquaculture suggests hatching animals from eggs and raising them to harvestable size. Urchin ranching on the other hand takes animals that are already mature in the wild and fattening them up for consumption.
+ How long does it take to take an empty urchin and turn it into an urchin full of roe?
To be safe, we say around 10 weeks. However, with the right species and with the right water temperatures, it can be as short as 4 weeks.
+ What is the Feed Conversion Ratio for urchins?
The Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR) is an approximate figure that tells how much feed is needed in kgs to make 1kg of commercially viable product. For ranched urchins, that means we need to use around 0.4kg of feed to turn 1kg worth of empty urchins into a plump, roe rich urchin ready for market. According to National Geographic, finfish like salmon requires 1.1kg, broiler chickens require 1.7kg, pigs require 2.9kg, and beef is greater than 6kg. Ranched bluefin tuna requires 28kg of feed to produce 1kg of product.
+ Do you want to eliminate sea urchins?
No, not at all. Urchins play a very important role in the balance of healthy ecosystems. We want to help recalibrate current urchin barrens to make them healthy balanced ecosystems again. In order to do this, we must reduce urchins densities as their high numbers prevent other organisms from growing on the ocean floor. We just want to remove the urchins in the shallow waters and keep them out, so that the kelp forest can return and bring all of its benefits with it.
+ What happens if you fish all the urchins in the shallow waters
Sea urchins live in both the shallows and the deep. Our plan is to fish and ranch urchins in the shallows that prevent kelp forests for returning. We have no intention of catching urchins in the deep, as this will not contribute to ecosystem restoration, as kelp will not be able to grow there anyway due to insufficient sunlight.
Thus, even if we are extremely successful in removing all the excessive urchins in the shallow waters, there will still be massive quantities of urchins in deeper waters wanting to come up. For this reason, it is vitally important that the kelp forests return and become the habitat for predatory species. Crabs, fish and the microscopic creatures that move into restored kelp forests eat urchin larve, helping to prevent urchin barrens from reestablishing themselves. And as the predators grow and are able to eat larger urchins, our role to be the dominant urchin predator becomes less and less. Our ultimate goal would be to make ourselves obsolete, and move to the next barren that needs a helping hand to flip back to a kelp ecosystem.
+ What causes urchin barrens?
Many of the urchin barrens we are carefully studying today are caused by human activities. Overfishing of predatory species, climate change and pollution are cited as the three main causes that allow urchin populations to explode unchecked. Urchin barrens in Norway, the Mediterranean and Japan seem to be correlated with overfishing of predatory species that normally keep urchin populations in check. Urchin barrens in California and Australia seem to be caused by climate change and warming waters.
+ How does Urchinomics contribute to carbon sequestration?
There are several ways Urchinomics contributes to carbon sequestration. Firstly, when urchin barrens are removed, the kelp spores floating in the water column settle onto the ocean floor and rapidly grow to become kelp. The kelp is essentially binding atmospheric carbon that is dissolved in the oceans and turning it into the blades, stems and the holdfast that keeps the kelp firmly rooted on the ocean floor. So the whole process of kelp growing binds carbon. The fauna that then moves into the kelp forest and grows also becomes a source of binding of carbon. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, kelp typically shed their blades at least once a year, much like trees do with their leaves in the fall. But unlike on land, the shed blades get distributed all over. Some wash up on the surface and become an important food for coastal birds and scavengers. But a larger quantity sinks into the deep ocean and end up in the sediment. Here, the kelp gets buried and does not decompose. The carbon that is buried is in other words “sequestered” from the atmosphere.
+ Wild seafood is often associated with heavy metals. What are the risks with urchins?
The risks for heavy metal accumulation tends to occur within higher trophic species (high on the food chain) like shark and tuna, because they eat smaller animals that also accumulate heavy metals. Lower trophic (low on the food chain) species like urchins are lower risk simply because they do not eat other animals that can accumulate heavy metals. Another factor that reduces our risk of exposure to heavy metals is our ranching process. We are collecting barren urchins with little roe and ranching these in our facilities. We then feed the urchins a formulated feed made primarily of kelp, which is not a common accumulator of heavy metals. Thus, urchins ranched and feed a natural, formulated diet derived from marine plants is a very low risk of accumulating heavy metals.
+ How does Urchinomics change the sea urchin value chain?
The sea urchin industry is unique, because unlike other fisheries around the world, the buyers and sellers (in this case fishers) have little certainty of what they are buying and selling until one opens them up for consumption. Perfect wild urchins, bitter and discolored urchins, empty barren urchins and carefully ranched urchins all look the same and weigh more or less the same, making it notoriously difficult for buyers and sellers to agree on prices when the quality and quantity of roe is one big guessing game. To complicate things further, the sea urchin value chain (so fishers, buyers, processors, distributors) has historically been opaque in terms of information sharing, which then leads to accusations of cheating, then mistrust and then conflict.
Now, by ranching empty sea urchins that are known to have no value, and feeding them consistently using our methodology, we can produce a product that is consistent in color, flavor and roe quantity, and therefore price, near all year round. We can use production statistics to help buyers and sellers know what is inside each ranched urchin shell without opening them up. This helps eliminate the guessing game, making it easier for everyone to transact.
+ How many urchins are needed to turn a kelp forest into an urchin barren?
The general consensus is that more than 2 sea urchins per square meter is enough for the animals to “flip” a kelp forest into an urchin barren. For reference, California, Japan and Norway on average have well over 20 sea urchins per square meter. Some places in Eastern Canada have over 500 sea urchins per square meter.
+ How big is the urchin market?
According to the FAO, the largest quantity of urchins landed globally was in 1995, at 108,000t. By 2014 however, the landings fell to less than 70,000t. Over 80% of global landings are said to be exported to East Asia. Though quantities have been falling around the world, prices have been skyrocketing due to the popularity of sushi and premium seafood around the world. Regular quality, processed, sea urchin roe in Japan and China is averaging well over EUR 120/kg at wholesale prices, while premium quality product is nearing EUR 400/kg. Whole sea urchins to be eaten out of the half shell is being sold at over EUR 20/kg. All prices are farm gate prices (from the primary producer to the distributor).
+ Are urchins becoming endangered?
The short answer is no; however, the answer is a bit more nuanced. As a lower trophic species, urchins are abundant virtually everywhere on our planet. They are found both in shallow and deep waters. For example, Norwegian scientists conservatively estimate their urchin biomass is over 2 billion animals in their Exclusive Economic Zone. They estimate that over 50,000t worth of urchins could be fished each year without making any real impact on the standing biomass. But urchin populations are so extensive and can live so deep, that estimating biomass scientifically is in practice very challenging.
However, the quantity of urchins that are within reach of scuba divers and have consistently good quality roe is rapidly declining due to overfishing, climate change and other factors. So, are readily accessible and roe-rich urchins in the wild declining, the answer is a resounding yes. This can be seen in the declining catch statistics from the FAO despite the rapidly rising prices. However, this does not automatically mean urchin populations are declining and endangered.
Urchinomics is working with governments, regulators, scientists and 3rd party certifiers like the Marine Stewardship Council to better quantify the biomass of urchins around the world and help dispel the myth that urchin stocks are in decline.
+ Are urchins bad because they turn kelp forests into barrens?
No. We do not believe that urchins are bad. On the contrary, we have tremendous respect for urchins and the role they play in the wider ecosystem. Though it is true urchin barrens are caused by uncontrolled population explosions of urchins, it is often human behavior that creates these conditions in the first place. Overfishing of urchin predators without taking into considering its knock on effects to lower trophic species is one major contributor to the development of urchin barrens. The release of unprecedented amount of carbon emissions that warm up the planet are allowing urchin larvae to survive and travel longer distances, when they should normally be dying off. The root of many urchin barrens around the world are directly attributable to human behavior, so blaming the humble urchin is not only wrong, but deflects attention from the real cause.
+ Does Urchinomics partner with just commercial entities?
Urchinomics works with all types of partnerships. We are particularly proud of our partnerships with government, independent scientists, charitable, non profit groups, environmental advocates, and aboriginal communities. We understand that each type of partnership is distinct, and we need to respect the unique characteristics of our partners' structure and/or culture. Thus, we do our best to accommodate and adapt our models to our partners' situations.
+ How did Urchinomics get started?
In the Fall of 2012, the Norwegian government sponsored a delegation of Japanese fishers that lost everything in the 2011 tsunami to visit Norway and see how Norwegian Japanese collaboration could help the fishers get back on their feet. During this visit, Brian, who was the Director for Innovation and Strategy at Kaston AS, met Mr. Hideki Takahashi, an urchin fisher from the tsunami ravaged Miyagi prefecture. Mr. Takahashi told him that the tsunami washed away key predators (including humans), allowing urchin populations to explode and overgraze their kelp forests.
Scientists subsequently verified this observation, and concluded that urchin populations increased 7x since the tsunami of 2011, causing untold damage to the coastal ecosystem in the region. In 2013, Brian secured various global technology rights related to urchin ranching, including the urchin feed developed by the Norwegian state-owned research institute, Nofima, to build what would be the foundations of Urchinomics.
By 2014, Brian and Mr. Takahashi successfully ranched the first batch of barren urchins and turned them into commercially viable product in Miyagi, Japan. To ensure this was not a fluke, Brian and Mr. Takahashi tried again in 2015 and achieved another round of resounding success. With sufficient proof of concept in hand, Brian established the Urchinomics concept as a 100% subsidiary of Kaston AS in 2016. By the end of 2016, Urchinomics was spun off as a separate company, with Brian and a Dutch investment group taking a minority position in the new entity. By the summer of 2017, Brian and the Dutch investment group purchased Kaston AS's shares and took full control of the company.